Google’s infantile big brain

/ Commentary

Note: edited 12 July 2021 after reading Ways of reading without the influence of community, which chimed with this, and got me looking at old articles.

If you haven’t seen it already, you really should catch up with Google and the World Brain, a Ben Lewis film aired on BBC 4.

Forget about the office bean bags and Galaxian machines. It’s not just low tax revenues that should worry you about Google.

Beware Google and Star Trek

Google are digitising lots of library texts without the permission of authors or the people who pay for libraries. Unfortunately, the libraries themselves are complicit, seemingly unable to undertake such a herculean task, in awe of Google’s vast data processing capabilities.

Once Google digitises these texts, they can sell them. In other words, we’re handing over millions of texts for Google to sell.

I’m not sure what worries me most about Google’s behaviour. It could be the frankly terrifying sight of Amit Singhal evangelising over digitising “all” knowledge, which put me in mind of a smiley Scientologist, or the attitude of the Bodleian Library’s director when asked about Google’s ownership of all of its digital content (basically a shrug and the most unacademic observation that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”).

Google execs are evidently Star Trek fans. Nothing wrong with that – I liked Star Trek when I was a teenager. But Google seems to view culture itself in the same, breezy, optimistic, rationalistic way as Star Trek – an easily categorisable information set that can be stored in a database and exploited later in an episode.

We should resist this easy to organise view of the world – knowledge is an active process that requires reading, not a bounded, quantifiable product. Yes, you can digitise any text, but that’s not the same as understanding it. If knowledge becomes something you simply store and search it becomes a commodity, which is of course where Google comes in.

Internet commentators are generally idiots

The film does interview some smart commentators, such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeney Morozov, but Google has its misguided supporters. Kevin Kelly had me swearing at the TV.

Perhaps one of the most insidious, wrong–headed consequences of the Star Trek view of culture is that artists do not own their work because “all knowledge is remixed”. As a consequence it’s just fine to come along, copy books and sell them on the internet.

We need to beware programmers when they step beyond scripting. Copying code from a WordPress theme is not the same as writing Pale Fire, even if the text is somehow influenced by Joyce and Tolstoy. Artists are more than mere remixers.

Libraries should share their knowledge themselves

Thanks to the heroic efforts of Jean–Noel Jeanneney and others, libraries have woken up to Google’s wrongness. There are millions of ancient, out of copyright texts that are ripe for publication on the internet. We don’t need Google to act as a middle man: Try Europeana instead.

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